Why Are There So Few Women in Design Leadership?

The uphill climb past entrenched bias makes many women just give up

Jessica Richards
Sep 20, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The data:

Only 33 of the companies in the Fortune 500 list have CEOs who are women.

The same applies to six of the companies in the FTSE 100.

Women don’t get to the top of companies very often, even in 2019.

We may have a better balance in the design industry than in the wider tech sector. Several teams I’ve worked on had a 50/50 ratio of male and female designers. But at senior levels, only 11% of design leaders are women. So we have the same old problem of not making it to the top. What’s happening?

My theory is simple: We get tired.

Here’s why…

Gender pay gap

It still exists. Currently, 78% of companies report a pay gap in favor of men. It starts early, often with negotiations on starting salary in the first job after university.

We’re taught to expect less, negotiate cautiously, and be grateful.

The fact that women earn less is reinforced by recruitment practices. A female designer I know applied for a role advertised at a specific salary range. She was hired, but offered a salary that was lower than the original range. None of the male designers I know have ever encountered this scenario. It knocks confidence, to say the least.

I’ve worked with a number of recruiters when looking for jobs. We’d usually agree on the salary range I would consider. But some asked what my current salary was, which wasn’t relevant, since I’d already indicated my desired range, and they should know anyway based on my experience. One recruiter, in particular, kept pestering me for specifics until I told him my salary. He proceeded to suggest I take jobs with only a marginal increase, using the rationale “it’s more than you currently get!” Never mind that I was changing jobs infrequently and a new job might be the biggest opportunity for a substantial raise in years.

This sort of lowballing happens all the time. We’re taught to expect less, negotiate cautiously, and be grateful. And it makes us tired. Of job hunting and of the industries we used to love.

Here’s a tip: If you offer a female designer a job, offer the top of your salary range. Don’t base your offer on her current salary. Assume we’re underpaid.

Workplace inflexibility

Whether or not a woman has kids, the motherhood penalty looms over us all.

I listened to a depressing conference talk that compared the experience of men and women in the workplace using an invisible point system, where points were allocated to men and women for various actions. The points represented whether employers perceive actions or choices as positive or negative and therefore whether they would help or hinder your career. The points underpin biased attitudes in the workplace, such as the bias toward youth and heterosexuality. Getting married, for example, is viewed as positive for a man (gain 1 point), but negative for a woman (lose 1 point). That’s because traditionally employers assume a woman may be thinking about having children if she gets married. If she does go on to have a child, that obviously means losing points (many points). I know of several women who were made redundant while on maternity leave. Out of sight, and quietly pushed out of the company. At a time when they didn’t feel able to fight back and a payout of any sort was the easiest option.

Talking about her employers in the banking industry, one female colleague told me, “When I took my first maternity leave, it was okay and I managed to keep the job I worked so hard for. I did everything I could to take minimal time off but the second child was just too much for them. They had to get rid of me.” She was steadily undermined, managed out, and left to rethink her career.

But for a man, becoming a father is another positive (gain 1 point). In fact, he may even be offered a pay raise or more readily considered for promotion because he now has a family to look after. On and on the points go, illustrating how little women can do right in a system that wasn’t built for them. This applies even more so to all minority groups.

Flexible working is much more popular now and, thankfully, offered to both genders far more often than it used to be. But I still know several women who accept lower pay for the flexibility they couldn’t negotiate without a pay cut. Or who stay in jobs with poor prospects because they need maternity benefits. Or who don’t put themselves forward for promotions in case it affects their other responsibilities.

Shared parental leave is a massive step forward, and many men welcome the opportunity to spend more time with their new children than the standard two weeks off. But earning equality has to come with it. Then everyone can decide to truly share the childcare while continuing to develop careers. More choice benefits us all.

Lack of sponsorship and stretch opportunities

A fantastic presentation at the Leading Design conference a few years back explored why women don’t advance into senior leadership with cold, hard data analysis. A major reason is the lack of sponsors for women.

A sponsor is different from a mentor. Women can find mentors who give them advice. But a sponsor is someone who believes in you to the extent that they will put their neck on the line. A sponsor sits in an executive meeting and says you should be promoted. They back your judgment and advocate for you at the highest level. In a competitive workplace, everyone needs sponsors, but not everyone gets them. That’s because we often unconsciously sponsor people who look like us. And of course, there are fewer women as you move up through the ranks.

Another key problem is the lack of stretch opportunities given to women. These are chances to grow above and beyond your existing set of responsibilities. It could mean opening a new office in a different country or taking on leadership of a different team. Successfully navigating these opportunities helps you to move up. But studies show women are often asked to “prove it again.” You’ve run a team, but it might be a fluke, so you’re asked to do it for longer or make a lateral move. You hit the famous glass ceiling, an invisible barrier beyond which you can’t advance. Your achievements are attributed to luck rather than skill. When we raise any of these issues, we don’t get heard. It’s very dispiriting and again knocks confidence, which is another reason women often end up…

Dropping out

For all the above reasons, women often get tired of trying to climb the ladder. It means that the 11% in design leadership faced many of the issues above and managed to break through, making them pretty tough and formidable characters.

It means it’s time to change things.


Helping designers thrive.

Jessica Richards

Written by

Product & UX Consultant. Founder of Creative Product Consulting. Feminist. World traveller. Empathy & cats.


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Jessica Richards

Written by

Product & UX Consultant. Founder of Creative Product Consulting. Feminist. World traveller. Empathy & cats.


Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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